The months-sometimes years-long facilities planning process for school districts often includes one or more trips to tour newly constructed or renovated school buildings. With each new learning environment offering something new and exciting, these tours can easily overload the senses. Beautiful color palettes, attractive materials and rooms flooded with daylight can leave us awe-struck, forgetting to observe critically, and wasting a valuable opportunity to ask important questions.
So, what should one be looking for during a school tour? How do district administrators, teachers, school board members and facility committee members gather meaningful information about the facilities they tour to aid in the transformation of their schools? Here are some valuable tips to ensure your school tour is time well spent:
Tour the facility while school is in session.
While school day tours can be tricky to schedule, there is simply no substitute for observing a new or renovated space while occupied by students and staff. Seeing students and teachers in action within the space helps to create a vision on how certain design elements could impact your school. Timing the school tour to also include student drop-off or student pickup windows allows groups to observe how effectively traffic is being routed in, out and around the school building. Effective bus and parent queuing is an important contributor to a safe school site. Also, pay particular attention to whether the school is noisy or quiet. Acoustics can have a big impact on staff and students, particularly those with special needs. Which design decisions contribute to certain areas being loud or echoey? In spaces that perform well, what steps have designers taken to dampen noise?
Is the school ready for the future?
With changes in education happening fast, it’s important to note how a school building can serve the generations of students to come. During your school tour, try to observe how design decisions, construction methods and site plans promote or inhibit the building’s ability to adapt and evolve over time.
Observe whether the school was designed with sustainable features top-of-mind. Keep an eye out for whether the building’s sustainable features are exposed, allowing the systems to be used as a teaching tool by staff in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields?
Furniture also has a major impact on meeting the current and future academic needs of students. Observe the furniture options in the classrooms, labs, specialty spaces and collaboration areas. Ask administrators, teachers and (if possible) students what they like and don’t like about the furniture. Also, take note on how the furniture is holding up. Is it durable? How is it impacting the space? Does the furniture promote or limit flexibility and collaboration among students?
Many school security experts agree that school facilities should include multiple layers of security. Does the site landscape and building exterior allow easy visual surveillance? Does the building have a true secure main entry sequence? Inside the building, ask about how the building is locked down in case of an emergency. How many secured access points must an intruder breach in order to access the grade wings; gymnasium; library; music suite; etc.?
Bring your architect and contractor.
When your entire team is assembled, environments you love won’t get “lost in translation” when you return home and describe the space. While onsite, your professional consultants can help you ask the right questions and point out the details you might miss. Plus, your architect and contractor can help keep you grounded as some features may be simply too expensive or difficult to replicate given your budget and particular set of circumstances. Additionally, having their presence available allows you the opportunity to pick their brain on why certain design decisions were made and how those decisions have improved, inspired or inhibited teaching and learning.
A few other fundamental tips:
- Take pictures – lots of pictures. A day of school tours can quickly turn into a fog of colors, textures and shapes so be sure to take pictures of the things you like or don’t like.
- Pro Tip: If you are visiting multiple sites, snap a picture of the school sign prior to entering so you don’t confuse one building with another. If school is in session, get permission to take photos.
- Request a floor plan. If the district does not have a floor plan available, take pictures of the emergency exit plan maps posted around the facility.
- Consider feel. Consider the physical and aesthetic traits that make each building unique and contribute to the school’s culture. Would the school you’re touring fit with the culture, mission and vision you’ve established in your district? Would it resonate with your community?
Download and debrief.
At the end of the tour, be sure to take the time to discuss what you just saw with the team. Which spaces worked well and which did not? Which ideas are the group interested in exploring further and which should be avoided? Debriefing while the tour is still fresh in your mind, with your architect and contractor present, will help ensure everyone’s expectations are met.
We hope these tips help you and your stakeholders get the most out of your school tour experience. If you would like more insight or help with your facility planning experience, don’t hesitate to reach out – we’d be happy to discuss your school’s needs.